Virtual currency transactions are taxable by law just like transactions in any other property. The IRS is aware that some taxpayers with virtual currency transactions may have incorrectly reported or failed to report income and pay the related tax. Therefore, it is actively addressing potential non-compliance in this area. Millions of taxpayers may find themselves the target of a new IRS initiative called Operation Hidden Treasure.
Virtual currency is a digital representation of value, other than a representation of the U.S. dollar or a foreign currency (“real currency”), that functions as a unit of account, a store of value, and a medium of exchange. Some virtual currencies are convertible, which means that they have an equivalent value in real currency or act as a substitute for real currency. The IRS uses the term “virtual currency” to describe the various types of convertible virtual currency that are used as a medium of exchange, such as digital currency and cryptocurrency.
Cryptocurrency. Cryptocurrency is a type of virtual currency that uses cryptography to secure transactions that are digitally recorded on a distributed ledger, such as a blockchain. Distributed ledger technology uses independent digital systems to record, share, and synchronize transactions, the details of which are recorded in multiple places at the same time with no central data store or administration functionality. A transaction involving cryptocurrency that is recorded on a distributed ledger is referred to as an “on-chain” transaction; a transaction that is not recorded on the distributed ledger is referred to as an “off-chain” transaction.
Regardless of the label applied, if a particular asset has the characteristics of virtual currency, it is virtual currency for Federal income tax purposes. In general, virtual currency is treated as property and general tax principles applicable to property transactions apply to transactions using virtual currency.
Sale or Exchange of Virtual Currency
When a person sells virtual currency, they must recognize any gain or loss on the sale, subject to any limitations on the deductibility of losses. The gain or loss is the difference between adjusted basis in the virtual currency and the amount received in exchange for the virtual currency, which should be reported on the Federal income tax return in U.S. dollars. The basis is the amount spent to acquire the virtual currency, including fees, commissions, and other acquisition costs in U.S. dollars. The adjusted basis is basis increased by certain expenditures and decreased by certain deductions or credits in U.S. dollars.
Transfer of property. If virtual currency is exchanged for property, the gain or loss is the difference between the fair market value of the property received and adjusted basis in the virtual currency exchanged. If a taxpayer transfers property held as a capital asset in exchange for virtual currency, they will recognize a capital gain or loss. If they transfer property that is not a capital asset in exchange for virtual currency, they will recognize an ordinary gain or loss.
Transfer of services. Generally, self-employment income includes all gross income derived by an individual from any trade or business carried on by the individual as other than an employee. Consequently, the fair market value of virtual currency received for services performed as an independent contractor, measured in U.S. dollars as of the date of receipt, constitutes self-employment income and is subject to the self-employment tax.
In addition, the medium of remuneration for services is immaterial to the determination of whether the remuneration constitutes wages for employment tax purposes. Consequently, the fair market value of virtual currency paid as wages, measured in U.S. dollars at the date of receipt, is subject to Federal income tax withholding, Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax, and Federal Unemployment Tax Act (FUTA) tax and must be reported on Form W-2, Wage and Tax Statement.
The amount of income a taxpayer must recognize is the fair market value of the virtual currency, in U.S. dollars, when received. In an on-chain transaction, the taxpayer receives the virtual currency on the date and at the time the transaction is recorded on the distributed ledger.
If a taxpayer pays for a service using virtual currency that they hold as a capital asset, then they have exchanged a capital asset for that service and will have a capital gain or loss. The gain or loss is the difference between the fair market value of the services received and the adjusted basis in the virtual currency exchanged.
Cryptocurrency Transactions and Hard Forks
A hard fork occurs when a cryptocurrency undergoes a protocol change resulting in a permanent diversion from the legacy distributed ledger. This may result in the creation of a new cryptocurrency on a new distributed ledger in addition to the legacy cryptocurrency on the legacy distributed ledger. If the cryptocurrency went through a hard fork, but the taxpayer did not receive any new cryptocurrency, whether through an airdrop (a distribution of cryptocurrency to multiple taxpayers’ distributed ledger addresses) or some other kind of transfer, the taxpayer doesn’t have taxable income. If a hard fork is followed by an airdrop and the taxpayer receives new cryptocurrency, they have taxable income in the tax year they receive that cryptocurrency.